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Cosmic clutter: the legal landscape of space debris - Universe

Cosmic clutter: the legal landscape of space debris

The third article of the editorial on Space Law curated by Veronica Moronese. An analysis on legal complexities and challenges surrounding space debris mitigation.

The Threat of Space Debris

Space exploration stands as a testament to humanity’s insatiable curiosity and innovative spirit, propelling remarkable scientific advancements, technological marvels, and global cooperation. However, looming over our activities in outer space is a pressing threat that could jeopardize future endeavours beyond Earth’s atmosphere: space debris. Often dubbed ‘space junk’, this term encompasses a wide array of abandoned human-made objects orbiting Earth, from retired satellites and spent rocket stages to minuscule remnants born from collisions or explosions. In view of addressing this pressing problem, it is important to note that space debris pose not only a tangible and transversal threat to space missions, satellites, and astronauts but also a convoluted legal challenge.
It’s not simply a matter of environmental protection. Left unaddressed, the escalating issue of space debris could precipitate the dreaded Kessler Syndrome—a scenario envisioning a low Earth orbit cluttered with such density of objects that collisions trigger a cascading effect, spawning more debris and escalating collision risks. This poses an imminent danger to vital space infrastructure, critical satellites, and crewed spacecraft, where even diminutive fragments hurtling at breakneck speeds can wreak havoc upon impact. Ultimately, the proliferation of debris could reach a tipping point, rendering space travel hazardous and potentially restraining humanity to the confines of Earth.

Legal Framework and Historical Context

It is relevant to note that the Outer Space Treaty, hailed as the cornerstone of space law, provides a foundational framework for space endeavours while not explicitly addressing the pressing issue of space debris. The reason behind the lack of regulation of space junk in the main treaty governing space activities lay in the historical context of its establishment, as it was promulgated in 1967, when space debris were far from being a concrete menace.
Subsequent conventions have sought to bridge this gap. The Liability Convention, for instance, expands upon the principles outlined in the Outer Space Treaty by establishing the liability of launching States for damage caused by their space objects, both on Earth’s surface and in space. Conversely, the Registration Convention mandates States to register their space objects, aiding in the identification and tracking of space debris. Furthermore, organizations like the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) have developed non-binding guidelines and best practices for mitigating and remediating space debris. While these guidelines offer valuable recommendations for minimizing debris creation and managing existing debris, they lack legal enforceability.

Infographic showing the space debris situation in different kinds of orbits around Earth.
Infographic showing the space debris situation in different kinds of orbits around Earth

Despite these collective efforts, the legal landscape surrounding space debris remains fragmented and lacks robust enforcement mechanisms. The voluntary nature of existing guidelines, alongside challenges in attributing liability for space debris incidents, highlights the urgent necessity for comprehensive and enforceable international regulations to safeguard the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.
The legal complexities entwined with space debris are indeed multifaceted, with jurisdictional ambiguity emerging as a primary concern. The transboundary nature of outer space complicates the assignment of responsibility for space debris mitigation and remediation. In fact, unlike terrestrial environments where national jurisdictions are clearly defined, the absence of distinct boundaries in space renders attributing liability for space debris collisions or incidents a daunting task.
Moreover, establishing liability for damage arising from space debris poses significant hurdles. While the Liability Convention, building upon Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty, stipulates absolute liability for launching States to compensate for damage caused by their space objects, proving causation and attributing damage to a specific space object can be a laborious process, particularly in scenarios involving multiple actors or events. This point is particularly relevant in the context of Active Debris Removal (ADR) activities, where operators from different jurisdictions may be involved.

Perseverance’s backshell sitting upright on the surface of Jezero Crater
NASA/JPL-Caltech – https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/jpeg/PIA25219.jpg

Moreover, the current legal framework fails to offer a comprehensive mechanism for resolving disputes related to space debris liability. This gap in the Convention must be addressed, and proposals have been put forward to draw upon general international law to fill this void. The lack of such a mechanism adds to the complexities of this issue, emphasizing the urgent need for a stronger and more enforceable international regulatory framework to safeguard the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.
The legal complexities surrounding space debris encompass regulatory gaps and enforcement mechanisms. While international agreements and guidelines outline broad principles for space debris mitigation, they often lack specific regulatory standards and enforcement mechanisms. As a result, adherence to space debris mitigation measures is mostly voluntary, and there is a lack of a universal framework for monitoring and enforcing compliance. Additionally, the rapid expansion of commercial space activities further exacerbates these regulatory challenges: with the increasing number of entities involved in space operations, the absence of robust regulatory frameworks and effective enforcement mechanisms could lead to inadequate adherence to space debris mitigation guidelines. This, in turn, could contribute to the accumulation of space debris and heightened collision risks.

Challenges and the Path Forward

Addressing the legal challenges posed by space debris demands strengthened international cooperation and governance mechanisms, and given the global scale of the issue, it is evident that no single country or entity can effectively tackle space debris in isolation. Collaborative efforts involving governments, space agencies, industry stakeholders, and international organizations are essential in formulating comprehensive strategies for mitigating and remediating space debris. From this, comes the imperative need for a more robust and enforceable international regulatory framework to uphold the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.
Efforts to enhance international cooperation on space debris encompass initiatives such as the Space Safety Coalition and the Space Sustainability Rating (SSR) system. These initiatives aim to promote responsible space practices and incentivize sustainable conduct. For instance, the SSR system assesses the sustainability of space actors based on factors like data sharing, orbital choices, collision avoidance measures, satellite de-orbiting plans, and detectability from Earth. Furthermore, forums like the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) provide a platform for dialogue and negotiation among space-faring nations to address emerging challenges and develop consensus-based solutions. COPUOS has played a pivotal role in crafting Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which were endorsed by the General Assembly in 2007.

The legal complexities surrounding space debris epitomize a multifaceted issue necessitating unified efforts from the global community. By addressing jurisdictional uncertainties, strengthening regulatory frameworks, fostering international collaboration, and harnessing technological advancements, stakeholders can collectively strive to mitigate the hazards presented by space debris and secure the enduring sustainability of outer space activities. As humanity persists in its pursuit to explore and harness the potential of space, the implementation of proactive measures to tackle space debris becomes indispensable. These measures are not only vital for safeguarding the future trajectory of space exploration but also for preserving a secure and sustainable space environment. While the journey ahead may be fraught with challenges, with concerted effort and unwavering commitment, we can ensure that the final frontier remains open and accessible for generations to come.

Other articles from the editorial of Space Law:

This article is part of our dossier on Space. Other content:

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